Shepherd's Purse

Capsella bursa-pastoris

shepherds_purse_02-07-14.jpg

Photo of shepherd’s purse plant and flowers
Phil Westra, Colorado State University, Bugwood.org
Edible
Family

Brassicaceae (mustards)

Description

Shepherds' purse is a many-stemmed annual with heart-shaped or triangular seed pods. Most people probably view it as a weed. Flowers many, along upper part of stems and their branches, minute, with 4 white, rounded petals. Blooms March–November. Basal leaves form a rosette and are deeply lobed, similar to dandelion but much smaller, to 4 inches long; stem leaves small, lance-shaped. Fruit 2-lobed, heart-shaped or triangular, formed lower on the stem while flowering continues above.

Size

Height: to 2 feet.

Habitat and conservation

This European native occurs in waste places, roadsides, pastures, gardens, lawns, and almost any open or disturbed habitat. Like the common dandelion, this plant traveled with European explorers and settlers throughout the world. Because of its small size and shallow root system, it is not as troublesome a weed as some others. This is the only species in its genus, worldwide.

image of Shepherd’s Purse distribution map
Distribution in Missouri

Statewide.

Human connections

The young leaves and fruits are rich in vitamin C and are esteemed in salads. Poultry relish this plant, too! Many medicinal uses have been recorded for shepherd's purse, as well, and some herbalists value it today.

Today, you would have to look hard to find a sheep herder who uses a triangular bag shaped like the fruit of this plant, but the name goes back to such medieval fashions.

Ecosystem connections

Shepherd’s purse has many adaptations that make it a successful "weed," a quick colonizer of disturbed soils: The flowers can self-fertilize, and the plant keeps blooming all year. A single plant can produce 90,000 seeds in its year of life. The seeds are tiny and sticky, which aids in their dispersal.